Writer's Block?  Watch a Movie!

By Jon Chaisson
2005,
Jon Chaisson

 

When one of your friends asks you what your top five favorite movies of all time are, do you actually sit down and think about why they're your favorite movies?  Is it because they had 'cool' scenes like car chases and explosions that blew you away?  Is it because you couldn't completely solve the case until the investigator unveiled the shocking twist at the end?  Or is it because they were so beautifully shot that you left wishing you could make something that artistic?

I admit that I've loved movies for those three reasons and more.  I can't help but love the over-the-top car chase at the end of The Blues Brothers.  Or the shocking climax in The Silence of the Lambs.  Or the amazing cinematography of Citizen Kane.  But I've come to realize that those reasons for loving the film are only the tip of the iceberg.  There has to be some deeper reason why I'll end up watching the same movie countless times on DVD or when it happens to be on television, and I've come to the conclusion that it's the writing that I enjoy and remember the most.

Let's admit that most of Hollywood's output is mostly aimed for pure entertainment value, just as it always has been.  Most movies are there for you to watch, not analyze.  The plots aren't very deep, and the dialogue is aimed for laughs or shock value.  But every now and again, there comes a movie that makes my jaw drop and my mind race.  All I can wonder is how on earth someone could come up with such a brilliant story, and why I didn't think of it in the first place.

Next time you watch one of your all-time favorite movies, take a good look -- and listen -- at how the story is told.  I know most of us (me included) really hate to dissect things that we enjoy, lest we cease to enjoy them, but humor me just this once.  This could help your sense of storytelling immensely.

Let's start with one of my personal picks: Seven.  Written by Andrew Kevin Walker and directed by David Fincher (released in 1995), this movie never ceases to amaze me.  The plot revolves around two investigators -- Brad Pitt as the rookie and Morgan Freeman as the 'old dog' just about to retire -- as they try to solve a bizarre serial murder case.  This serial killer is no normal criminal, as he has chosen as his modus operandi the seven deadly sins.  One by one victims start surfacing, each "punished" for giving into a specific sin.  A severely obese man is found dead in his apartment, having choked to death by forced-feeding:  gluttony.  Another man is found, barely alive, in his bed, rotting away:  sloth.  And the list goes on...

The story itself is told in a traditional three-act arc, where in Act I we are given all the information we need to know at that point:  a murder has taken place, soon to be followed by another.  Act II commences when Somerset uncovers the motive, when he connects the first few murders together and sees the disturbing pattern.  We are thrust deep into the story then, as we follow the detectives as they uncover each clue, bringing them closer to the killer.  Act III starts unexpectedly with the killer, aptly named John Doe, revealing himself to the detectives.  This brings us to the most unexpected plot twist:  there are two deadly sins still left unaccounted for.  How will Doe commit the final crimes if he is now in custody?  We know that he will somehow, for if he did not it would make a very unsatisfying end to the movie.  How he does it becomes the thrilling climax to the story.

What fascinates me about Seven is that after the first few bodies are found, the intricate details of each 'punishment,' as well as the characters themselves, start to interweave in such a complex and unexpected way that I can't help but be drawn deeper into the story.  Detective Somerset (Freeman) knows exactly what he's getting into with this case -- and he wants out, because this is his last-ever case for the force.  His reluctance is justified, because he knows this will all end on a sour note.  Detective Mills (Pitt), on the other hand, is still as green as they come and can't wait to bag this killer.  His ambition blinds him from seeing the potential hazards that await him.  And then there's John Doe.  Not so much an insane human being as a very calculating, very intelligent, and extremely disturbed individual.  His cold view of the world fuels his quiet rage to the point that he feels he must punish it in the only way he knows how.  It becomes a race of sorts, with the two detectives rushing to catch this killer before he covers all seven deadly sins, and the killer moving one step ahead to finish what he has started.  I'm not going to tell you the end of the movie, of course, because I don't want to spoil it for you.  However, I will divulge the fact that the two detectives are drawn deeper into this killer's world than they expect, with devastating consequences.

So why do I mention this movie in an article about writing?   Disturbing as the story may be, Seven is up there with the most spellbinding murder mysteries I've seen in some time, and certainly has a script I wish I'd written.  This is a perfect example of how to successfully use subplots and diverse characters in telling a really good story. 

Take, for example, Detective Mills.  The first we see him, he's gung-ho about solving this first death.  He's new to the force, and he wants to make a good impression with the knowledge that he has.  Not to mention that he wants to do all he can to support his new wife, who figures into the plot later on.  We see his character evolve quickly and seamlessly, as his resolve to finish this case is eroded, bit by bit, until he is left questioning his own motives.

On the other hand, his seasoned partner, Detective Somerset, has seen so many disturbing things in his time on the force that nothing him fazes him anymore -- that is, not until he realizes the real motive behind these killings.  Even then, he refuses to believe that something this gruesome can pull at his heart and mind in such a way.  We see him evolve in a direction opposite of Mills; his faith in humanity and himself starts to grow again after too many years of dwelling in anger and depression.

In the end, both are changed by the unchanging John Doe.  His deliberate actions affect the two men in ways only he would understand and ultimately he claims his own victory by completing the gruesome task he has set for himself.  His only real change is that he achieves the power to change the world around him.

*   *   *

I've learned many things from watching movies like Seven, and I've managed to use those things in my writing.  Like in everyday life, there are many actions revolving around every character in a movie, and regardless of characters' personalities, they are changed by those actions, however large or small.  The best characters are wildly different in every way, and their conflicting personalities create the best stories when they are thrown together so that they can do nothing but react to each other.  This brings about change, which in turn brings about resolution.  The trick, then, is to hone that conflict, craft it into an interweaving of plots and subplots until it is seamless.

There are plenty of movies out there that a writer can watch and learn from.  Many so-called 'indie flicks' give plot and characters a sharper focus than your typical Hollywood movie, and those are the ones that writers should learn from.  I watched many during my tenure in college, where I studied film, and the more I watch them, the more I'm intrigued by and enamored of the craft of storytelling.  I must have seen Citizen Kane at least fifteen times, most likely more, and many consider that the best storytelling-based movie.   It has a very circular way of telling its story, starting at the end of Kane's life, swinging back to his childhood, and showing the audience every significant detail up until his death.  And I'll see it again if it's on.

It's impossible for me to explain every little detail of how a writer can pinpoint every single plot point and understand the writing craft, but it doesn't hurt to watch these a few times and try to see for yourself if you can find how the writer created the script.  Other character-based movies out there, from the intense Schindler's List to the war satire Catch-22 to the pseudo-documentary The Blair Witch Project, tell a story of life and how it irrevocably changes those involved in it.  There are many such movies; all you need to do as a writer is find the ones that hit you the hardest and make you say "damn, I wish I'd written that."